Title: Integrity secured. Understanding ethical decision making among street-level bureaucrats in the Belgian Labor Inspection and Federal Police.
Other Titles: Integriteit in veiligheid. Ethische besluitvorming van street-level bureaucrats in de Belgische Arbeidsinspectie en Federale politie.
Authors: Loyens, Kim
Issue Date: 24-May-2012
Abstract: This study focused on a fundamental issue in criminology: the question how front-line officers in the police and the labor inspection deal with their discretion, and particularly whether they use their discretion with integrity. The main interest of this study was to explain how organizational factors impact ethical decision making. The central research question was: “How do organizational patterns impact the way in which street-level bureaucrats deal with specific moral dilemmas?”This research question was addressed by means of an ethnographic, comparative study in different field organizations of the police and the labor inspection (i.e. 2 units of the Federal Police and 4 Directorates of the Inspection of Social Laws) in a medium-sized and a large judicial district within Belgium. The data collection methods were observation, informal conversation, interviewing and documentary analysis. These methods enabled the researcher to gain in-depth knowledge concerning the main components of the theoretical framework: behavioral style (i.e. dependent variable), organizational patterns (i.e. umbrella term for independent variables) and causal pathway (i.e. link between dependent and independent variables).This study hypothesized that organizational patterns impact the behavioral style through a specific causal pathway. The behavioral style refers to the way in which police officers and labor inspectors deal with moral dilemmas. Three moral dilemma types were analyzed: (1) decisions to start or stop an investigation, (2) decisions concerning applying investigative measures and procedural rules, and (3) decisions whether or not to report colleagues’ misbehavior. The behavioral style was operationalized by means of grid-group cultural theory (GGCT). This theory offers a fourfold typology with two dimensions: ‘grid’ and ‘group’. ‘Grid’ refers to the way in which individuals are bound by rules and stratification. ‘Group’ refers to the extent in which individual choice is constrained by group choice (Thompson, Ellis, & Wildavsky, 1990; Douglas, 1978). This leads to four types of behavioral style. In hierarchy (i.e. high grid, high group), front-line officers aim at following rules and orders. In egalitarianism (i.e. low grid, high group), they base decisions on informal agreements within the group. In individualism (i.e. low grid, low group), decisions are made opportunistically by looking for one’s best interest and maximizing efficiency. In fatalism (i.e. high grid, low group), front-line officers feel constrained by rules they do not endorse themselves. In the three dilemma types, street-level bureaucrats in this study could apply one of the four behavioral styles (or a combination).‘Organizational patterns’ as a general category refers to various relevant independent variables, including the relationship with judicial authorities, the managerial style of supervisors, group interaction, (perceived) discretion and autonomy. These factors were also operationalized by means of GGCT and could thus be hierarchical, egalitarian, individualistic or fatalistic (or a mix). GGCT hypothesizes that organizational patterns are associated with the behavioral style used by the members of that organization. Specifically, the hypothesis is that the relative importance of the four types in the organizational patterns will resemble the relative importance of the four types in the behavioral style. GGCT also emphasizes that the four types are present in all organizations, because they need each other to compensate for their own, built-in weaknesses and blind spots.GGCT, however, seems to be insufficient to explain the conditions and causal mechanisms under which behavior is influenced by one of the four types in specific situations. Therefore, the theoretical framework was complemented with ‘causal mechanisms’. These formed the central component of the causal pathway between the independent and the dependent variables. Inspiration was drawn from role strain theory that explains how people deal with conflicting expectations (Merton, 1957), and moral disengagement theory that explains why people engage in questionable behavior without remorse (Bandura, 1990a).In general, this study confirmed Lipsky (1980)’s proposition that front-line officers do not only implement policy that is developed by higher authorities, but also ‘produce’ policy by adapting the rules to particular situations and sometimes even bending them (Meyers & Vorsanger, 2003; Hupe & Hill, 2007). At the same time, the front-line officers in this study were to some extent also influenced by their organizational environment. The most striking findings concerning that organizational impact will be summarized below. These will be discussed for each behavioral style separately.As expected, judicial authorities regularly managed to influence street-level bureaucrats’ behavior. This logically derives from their role as ‘leaders of the investigation’. Street-level bureaucrats regularly applied a hierarchical behavioral style, in the sense that they respected the authority of the public prosecutor, the ‘arbeidsauditeur’ (who is the counterpart of the public prosecutor at the labor court) and the examining magistrate. Also, supervisors’ formal authority was often respected. However, in the case of conflicting demands between various hierarchical actors, street-level bureaucrats not always chose to follow the highest actor’s demands. A case in point is the labor inspectors’ choice to neglect head office’s orders in favor of supervisors’ orders. This was explained by the fact that supervisors’ orders were considered more nearby (and thus more important) than the head office’s orders.Hierarchical orders were sometimes bypassed by individualistic strategies. Autonomy in the labor inspection sometimes led to inspectors misinterpreting head office’s instructions, for example by broadening their discretionary powers or becoming blindedfor rules that limit discretion. Because supervisors often failed to inspect inspectors, these misperceptions were mostly not corrected. The discretion and autonomy police officers and labor inspectors enjoy also led to other types of individualistic behavior, such as breaking procedural rules to get results. This was often explained by the lack of oversight and managers’ emphasis on quantifiable results. Other findings, however, illustrated beneficial effects of such an individualistic managerial style, like encouraging the willingness to work hard(er).Sometimes street-level bureaucrats made decisions to start/stop an investigation or to use a specific investigative measure in an egalitarian way. In other words, they made these kinds of decisions as a group. This was more relevant in the police than in the labor inspection, simply because labor inspectors tend to work more individually than detectives. The latter sometimes made these group decisions without their supervisor knowing, which was enabled by the lack of oversight. Police managers, however, also sometimes deliberately chose to apply an egalitarian managerial style (i.e. decreasing ‘grid’ to stimulate participatory decision making) to keep hard-working detectives motivated. In the police, the trust-based relationship with judicial authorities was particularly relevant to explain egalitarian decisions concerning investigative measures. When magistrates believed detectives had the same goals as they did, they tended to trust on detectives’ ‘gut feeling’. The egalitarian behavioral style was, however, also sometimes inspired by a compassionate attitude towards victims, especially when street-level bureaucrats were convinced that the social system failed to help these victims. Street-level bureaucrats sometimes also applied a fatalistic behavioral style in which they felt powerless to take action against crime or exploitation. Fatalism was mainly expressed in the relationship with victims or suspects. Police officers were often confronted with human exploitation victims who did not want to be ‘saved’, because they considered their exploitative living conditions to be more favorable than the conditions in which they lived before. Also, labor inspectors often complained about suspects being able to break rules without getting caught as a result of legal loopholes in social penal law or because they did not use all legal competences they had (e.g. ‘right to search’). As for the peer reporting dilemmas, this study partly confirmed classic theories that explain why staff members hold on to a silence code (e.g., ‘blue code of silence’ in the police culture literature: Skolnick, 1975; Paoline, 2003). Street-level bureaucrats often decided not to report colleagues’ misbehavior because they wanted to preserve the relationship with them (i.e. egalitarian style of keeping silent) or because they knew that snitching would lead tocounter-snitching (i.e. individualistic style of keeping silent). Interestingly, this was not only relevant in the police (as the policeculture literature would predict), but also in the labor inspection. In addition, the study identified otherreasons that explain the decision to keep silent, such as “I am too inexperienced to report misbehavior of more experienced colleagues” (i.e. hierarchical style of keeping silent), “This is not my responsibility” (i.e. hierarchical style of keeping silent) and “I do not want to interfere in my colleagues’ investigations” (i.e. individualistic style of keeping silent). Interestingly, in more than half of the cases, the respondents decided not to keep silent. The study identified several reasons for reporting misbehavior, such as thinking the supervisor had the right to know (i.e. hierarchical reporting style), having higher seniority than the misbehaving colleague (i.e. hierarchical reporting style) and avoiding to get into trouble themselves (i.e. fatalistic reporting style). If the step to report the misbehavior to their supervisor was considered too risky, they sometimes decided to reprimand the colleague for his/her misbehavior. These findings illustrate that reasons to report or to keep silent are more complex than the whistleblowing literature suggests and that GGCT could be used to capture this complexity.This study aimed to enrich GGCT with middle range theories in the causal mechanism approach so explanations could be found for the impact of the four types of organizational patterns in specific situations. As an explorative qualitative study, the aim was not to generalize to a population, but to build a theory. The empirical findings should thus be tested in future research.
Description: Als eerstelijnsambtenaren worden politierechercheurs en arbeidsinspecteurs vaak geconfronteerd met morele dilemma’s waarin verschillende waarden tegenover elkaar staan (bv. legaliteit versus resultaatgerichtheid). Een moreel dilemma is een moeilijke keuze omdat niet alle waarden tegelijkertijd gerealiseerd kunnen worden. In dit onderzoek stonden drie types van morele dilemma’s centraal: (1) de beslissing om een onderzoek aan te vatten of te beëindigen, (2) de beslissing om een bepaalde onderzoekstechniek of -procedure toe te passen en (3) de beslissing om onethisch gedrag van collega’s al dan niet te melden. Dit onderzoek was erop gericht om enerzijds te beschrijven hoe rechercheurs en arbeidsinspecteurs omgaan met deze morele dilemma’s en om anderzijds hun gedrag te verklaren door op zoek te gaan naar organisationele factoren die een impact hebben op dit gedrag.

Dit onderzoek combineerde en integreerde ‘grid-group cultural theory’, ‘role strain theory’ en ‘moral disengagement theory’ om de relatie in kaart te brengen tussen organisationele factoren (bv. leiderschapsstijl, discretionaire ruimte, verhouding met gerechtelijke instanties) en de gedragsstijl die rechercheurs en arbeidsinspecteurs hanteren bij het omgaan met morele dilemma’s. Het was er op gericht om hypothesen te formuleren die de besluitvormingsprocessen van beide groepen verklaren. Dit onderzoek werd uitgevoerd in België, meer bepaald in twee afdelingen van de Federale Politie die instaan voor onderzoeken naar mensensmokkel en mensenhandel (zowel economische als seksuele uitbuiting) en vier externe directies van de federale inspectiedienst Toezicht op de Sociale Wetten. Het onderzoek vond plaats in een middelgroot en een groot gerechtelijk arrondissement. De data werden verzameld via observaties, informele gesprekken, interviews en documentenanalyse.

Op basis van dit onderzoek kunnen vier globale conclusies worden geformuleerd. Ten eerste werd vastgesteld dat politieambtenaren en arbeidsinspecteurs opereren in een spanningsveld tussen hiërarchische controle en autonomie. Hiermee bevestigde dit onderzoek de centrale stelling van de ‘street-level bureaucracy’ literatuur. Zoals verwacht, werden rechercheurs en arbeidsinspecteurs in hun beslissingen vaak beïnvloed door leidinggevenden en gerechtelijke overheden. Dit is logisch gezien de hiërarchische rol van leidinggevenden en de rol van gerechtelijke overheden als ‘leiders van het onderzoek’. Nochtans tonen de resultaten ook aan dat rechercheurs en arbeidsinspecteurs veel autonomie hebben in het nemen van beslissingen en dat ze in bepaalde gevallen de ruimte hebben om regels naar hun hand te zetten. Wanneer instructies van gerechtelijke instanties en leidinggevenden elkaar tegenspraken, slaagden rechercheurs er soms in om een coalitie te vormen met diegene van wie ze de instructies zelf het meest onderschreven. Arbeidsinspecteurs kozen er daarnaast vaak voor om instructies van het hoofdbestuur naast zich neer te leggen als hun leidinggevende hen iets vroeg dat hiermee in strijd was, ondanks het feit dat diens positie lager is in de organisatie dan het hoofdbestuur. Men vond de instructies van de directe leidinggevende belangrijker dan die van het hoofdbestuur, omdat de directe leidinggevende dichter betrokken is bij hun werk. Dit onderzoek toonde ook risico’s van het brede ‘appreciatierecht’ van arbeidsinspecteurs, zoals de kans op ongelijke behandeling van burgers.

Ten tweede toonde dit onderzoek aan dat arbeidsinspecteurs soms machteloos staan ten opzichte van frauderende bedrijven. Werkgevers die de sociale wetgeving overtraden, slaagden er soms in om te ontsnappen aan rechtsvervolging omwille van achterpoortjes in de wetgeving en het feit dat arbeidsinspecteurs hun bevoegdheden niet altijd ten volle benutten. Dit laatste kan geïllustreerd worden door te verwijzen naar de terughoudendheid bij arbeidsinspecteurs om het ‘zoekingsrecht’ te gebruiken. Deze bevoegdheid kan gebruikt worden om tijdens een inspectie te zoeken naar bezwarende documenten (waaruit sociale fraude blijkt) als werkgevers die willen achterhouden. Nochtans lijkt het ‘zoekingsrecht’ in de praktijk bijna nooit gebruikt te worden, waardoor werkgevers er regelmatig in slagen om bewijsmateriaal nadien te vernietigen. De arbeidsinspecteurs in de onderzochte organisaties waren onvoldoende vertrouwd met het ‘zoekingsrecht’ en vaak terughoudend om het te gebruiken uit vrees om procedurefouten te maken. Het nieuwe Sociaal Strafwetboek tracht meer helderheid te bieden met betrekking tot het gebruik van deze en andere bevoegdheden van arbeidsinspecteurs.

Een derde conclusie van dit onderzoek is de vaststelling dat politierechercheurs binnen afdelingen mensenhandel en mensensmokkel soms niet in staat zijn om bepaalde slachtoffers van uitbuiting te ‘redden’. Enerzijds kwam dit doordat slachtoffers niet gered wilden worden. Sommige slachtoffers verkozen de leefomstandigheden in de uitbuitingssituatie boven terugkeer naar hun thuisland, omdat de leefomstandigheden daar nog erger waren. Sommige slachtoffers wilden ook niet voldoen aan de wettelijke voorwaarden om erkend te worden als ‘slachtoffer van mensenhandel’. Omdat het succes van onderzoeken naar mensenhandel en mensensmokkel vaak afhankelijk is van de getuigenis van slachtoffers, was hun gebrek aan medewerking doorgaans nefast voor het opsporingsonderzoek. Anderzijds was er ook frustratie bij rechercheurs wanneer gerechtelijke overheden niet wensten te investeren in wat zij als minder ernstige vormen van uitbuiting zagen, hoewel rechercheurs vonden dat deze wel voorwerp moesten uitmaken van een opsporings- of gerechtelijk onderzoek. Op basis van deze studie werden er bovendien verschillen vastgesteld in de wijze waarop diverse parketten begrippen als ‘uitbuiting’ en ‘precaire toestand’ invulden. Met andere woorden: gelijkaardige dossiers werden soms anders beoordeeld in verschillende arrondissementen. Dit houdt risico’s in met betrekking tot gelijke behandeling.

Ten vierde nuanceert dit onderzoek de assumpties met betrekking tot de ‘blue code of silence’ in de literatuur over politiecultuur. Deze literatuur suggereert dat er in de politie sprake is van een zwijgcode wanneer collega’s in de fout gaan. Dit komt volgens deze literatuur meer voor in de politie dan in andere beroepsgroepen omwille van een grote solidariteit tussen politieambtenaren. Dit onderzoek bevestigt deels dat er een zwijgcode is binnen de onderzochte federale politiediensten. Het toont echter aan dat er binnen de onderzochte diensten van Toezicht op de Sociale Wetten ook sprake is van een zwijgcode. De motieven om te zwijgen bleken complexer te zijn dan de literatuur over politiecultuur aangeeft. De respondenten besloten soms om onethisch gedrag van collega’s te verzwijgen vanuit opportunistische motieven (omdat ze wisten dat ze die persoon nog nodig zouden hebben in de toekomst) of omdat ze vonden dat zij niet verantwoordelijk waren om dit te gaan melden. Dit onderzoek bracht ook aan het licht dat rechercheurs en arbeidsinspecteurs de zwijgcode soms doorbreken. Dit gebeurde op basis van verschillende motieven, zoals proberen te ‘scoren’ bij leidinggevenden en trachten te vermijden dat men zelf als medeplichtig zou worden beschouwd als leidinggevenden er achter zouden komen dat men op de hoogte was van het gedrag maar het niet gemeld had.
As front-line officers, police detectives and labor inspectors are often confronted with moral dilemmas in which various values conflict (e.g. legality versus result-orientedness). A moral dilemma can be defined as a difficult choice because not all values are simultaneously feasible. This study focused on three moral dilemma types with which police detectives and labor inspectors are confronted: (1) the decision to start or stop an investigation, (2) the decision to apply a certain investigative strategy or procedure and (3) the decision (not) to report colleagues’ misbehavior. This study aimed to describe how detectives and labor inspectors deal with these moral dilemmas and then to explain their choices, particularly focusing on the impact of organizational factors.

This study combined grid-group cultural theory, role strain theory and moral disengagement theory to gain more insight into the relationship between organizational factors (e.g., leadership style, legal discretion, relationship with judicial authorities), on the one hand, and the behavioral style street-level bureaucrats apply when dealing with a moral dilemma, on the other. It aimed to formulate a number of hypotheses that explain the underlying decision making processes. This study was conducted in Belgium, particularly in two Federal Police units that deal with human trafficking and economic/sexual exploitation crimes and four Directorates of the Inspection of Social Laws in a medium-sized and a large judicial district. The data collection methods were observation, informal conversation, interviewing and documentary analysis.

This study led to four main conclusions that need further testing in future research. First, it illustrated the tension between hierarchical control and autonomy in street-level decision making, which confirms the central assumption in the street-level bureaucracy literature. As expected, police detectives and labor inspectors were often steered by supervisors and judicial authorities when making important decisions. This logically derives from the supervisor’s managerial role and judicial authorities’ role as ‘leaders of the investigation’. However, the results showed that detectives and labor inspectors also have the autonomy to make their own decisions and even have opportunities to bend rules. When orders from judicial authorities and supervisors conflicted, detectives sometimes managed to form a coalition with the actor whose orders they approved most of. Conflicting demands between different hierarchical actors did not always lead to the highest authority being followed (e.g., labor inspectors neglecting head office’s instructions in favor of supervisors’ orders). This study also revealed the risks of the wide discretion labor inspectors enjoy in terms of differential treatment of citizens.

Second, this study showed that labor inspectors sometimes felt powerless to take action against frauding firms. Employers sometimes managed to get away with breaking the law as a result of legal loopholes or labor inspectors not using the legal powers they have. The latter can be illustrated with labor inspectors’ reluctance to use their legally sanctioned right to search. While this competence could be used to inspect incriminating documents employers refuse to hand over, labor inspectors often decided not to use it. This mainly resulted from their limited knowledge of this right to search, leading to anxiety concerning consequences when used wrongfully. The new Belgian Social Penal Code aims to provide clarity concerning these and other competences labor inspectors have.

Third, police detectives sometimes felt powerless to ‘save’ victims of human trafficking or exploitation. This sometimes resulted from the fact that victims did not want to be saved. Particularly, some of them preferred their exploitative living conditions above returning to their home country or above having to comply with the legal conditions of becoming an officially recognized ‘exploitation victim’. Because these types of investigations often rely on victim statements, refusal or withdrawal of cooperation can be pernicious for the investigation. Detectives also sometimes complained about judicial authorities not wanting to invest in what the latter considered less serious exploitation cases, although these cases were in detectives’ eyes worthwhile to work on. As for the latter, this study revealed differences in the way in which public prosecutors in different regions interpreted the concepts ‘exploitation’ and ‘precarious conditions’. This implies the risk of legal inequality.

Fourth, this study nuanced the assumptions of the police culture literature concerning the ‘blue code of silence’. This literature suggests that police officers are – more than other professional groups – reluctant to report on colleagues’ misbehavior because of strong group solidarity in police agencies. This study partly confirmed that there is a silence code in the police, but also led to the conclusion that there is a silence code in the labor inspection as well. In addition, the motives to keep quiet seemed to be more complex and varied than suggested in the police culture literature. Street-level bureaucrats sometimes kept quiet for opportunistic reasons (because they would need their colleague’s help in the future) or because they did not consider it their responsibility to report. This study also revealed that detectives and labor inspectors sometimes break the silence code. Motives for these decisions were trying to ‘score’ with their supervisor and trying to avoid being accused of complicity by their supervisor because they knew about the misbehavior and did not report it.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC)

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